In 1911, famed cartoonist Winsor McCay debuted one of the first animated cartoons, based on his sophisticated newspaper strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” itself inspired by Freud’s recent research on dreams. McCay is largely forgotten today, but he unleashed an art form, and the creative energy of artists from Otto Messmer and Max Fleischer to Walt Disney and Warner Bros.’ Chuck Jones. Their origin stories, rivalries, and sheer genius, as Reid Mitenbuler skillfully relates, were as colorful and subversive as their creations—from Felix the Cat to Bugs Bunny to feature films such as Fantasia—which became an integral part and reflection of American culture over the next five decades.
Pre-television, animated cartoons were aimed squarely at adults; comic preludes to movies, they were often “little hand grenades of social and political satire.” Early Betty Boop cartoons included nudity; Popeye stories contained sly references to the injustices of unchecked capitalism. “During its first half-century,” Mitenbuler writes, “animation was an important part of the culture wars about free speech, censorship, the appropriate boundaries of humor, and the influence of art and media on society.” During WWII it also played a significant role in propaganda. The Golden Age of animation ended with the advent of television, when cartoons were sanitized to appeal to children and help advertisers sell sugary breakfast cereals.
Wild Minds is an ode to our colorful past and to the creative energy that later inspired The Simpsons, South Park, and BoJack Horseman.
Praise for Wild Minds:
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice
“[A] lively history of the first half-century of animation . . . In his prologue, Mitenbuler suggests the story he’s about to tell will go from rude to rarefied, but one of the most fascinating things about the history he recounts is that animation, like so much of American culture, continually scrambled all sorts of categories and expectations. The arc of Wild Minds is appropriately weird, full of high-flown aspirations and zany anecdotes.”—Jennifer Szalai, New York Times
“Wild Minds assembles its history with love and a sense of occasion . . . The book’s governing idea lies in its heroes’ collective intuition that animated films could be a vehicle for grownup expression—erotic, political, and even scientific—rather than the trailing diminutive form they mostly became . . . All art aspires to the condition of music, a wise man said once, and perhaps all cultural history aspires to the condition of a cartoon: a seeming fluidity of movement, made up of countless small stops and starts.”—Adam Gopnik, New Yorker
“Wild Minds is a colorful chronology of the first 50 years of American animated film. Juicy tales abound about the films and the wildly imaginative people who made them. Mr. Mitenbuler tells their stories with relish and clarity.”—John Canemaker, Wall Street Journal
“Superficially, Wild Minds is about the origins of Mickey Mouse, Popeye the Sailor and Bugs Bunny cartoons. But Mitenbuler’s real target is a quintessentially American story of daring ambition, personal reinvention and the eternal tug-of-war of between art and business . . . While animation would rise again to find its place in our own era of the long-running Simpsons and the glorious works of Hayao Miyazaki, Mitenbuler’s book is a gem for anyone wanting to understand animation’s origin story.”—Adam Frank, NPR
“A fast-moving account of the cartoonists, writers, inventors, hucksters, and hopeful moguls who constructed the firmament of American animation and filled it with constellations of talking mice, rabbits, birds, and pigs that have become more nameable than any actual stars in the sky . . . A highly readable overview . . . Generous with fun facts.”—Michael Tisserand, New York Times Book Review
“Film buffs will delight in this exploration of the golden age of animation. Surveying everything from Betty Boop to Popeye, author Reid Mitenbuler argues that a number of the medium’s early classics were bolder and more daring than today’s animated movies. He paints a delightfully full picture of the artform and its artists.”—Christian Science Monitor
“Mitenbuler shows just how renegade the pioneers of animation were . . . A journey into how animation became cultural insurgency.”—Scott Thomas Anderson, San Francisco Chronicle
“A welcome return to the glory days of Little Nemo and Felix the Cat, Mickey and Donald, Betty Boop and Popeye, Porky, Daffy and Bugs and many others . . . A very enjoyable book. [Mitenbuler is] an indomitable researcher and a great storyteller . . . A refreshing, popular intro to America’s cartoon classics.”—Gene Walz, Winnipeg Free Press
“Entertaining history of early cartoon animation. Demonstrating impassioned research and technical know-how, Mitenbuler presents a series of historical anecdotes that, sequenced together, bring to life one of the world’s most beloved art forms . . . The narrative crackles with captivating charm, adding color and nuance to a cast of familiar cartoon faces . . . Like a one-man animation department, [Mitenbuler] effortlessly renders both celluloid and background. A finely drawn history of a critical period in the history of animation.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Journalist Mitenbuler casts the creators of animated cartoons as characters themselves in this rollicking history of the first 50 years of animation . . . In snappy prose, Mitenbuler writes a history rich with personalities. This Technicolor tour de force is impossible to put down.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“While animation is often considered a children’s medium, its early days were filled with social commentary, sexuality, satire, and countless creative and financial battles . . . An entertaining and revealing look into the dawn of a revolutionary art form.”—Library Journal
“Wild Minds is a thoroughly captivating behind-the-scenes history of classic American animation, full of breezy stories of the great artists who went crazy making the brilliant cartoons we all know and love. A must-read for all fans of the medium.”—Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and Futurama
“If the twentieth century had its court painters, they were the cartoonists and animators employed by Walt Disney and other creative wizards of pop culture. In his engrossing, entertaining, and deeply researched Wild Minds, Reid Mitenbuler recreates the world of these classic animators — the largely unsung Holbeins and Van Dycks of the Magic Kingdom and at Warner Bros., Paramount, and smaller studios. There’s a direct evolutionary path, we come to realize, from the genius of Winsor McCay, a century ago, to the subversive tropes of South Park. The legacy of the animators is one we can’t escape — and don’t want to.”—Cullen Murphy, author of Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe
“In this absorbing history of animation, Reid Mitenbuler illuminates lives both deservedly familiar (Walt Disney, Max Fleischer, Chuck Jones) and tragically forgotten (Winsor McCay, Émile Cohl). The prose is terrific, the insights frequent, and the information fascinating. Mitenbuler deepens one’s understanding not only of his subject, but the world itself. It’s everything you want a nonfiction book to be.”—Tom Bissell, author of Creative Types and coauthor of The Disaster Artist
“An absolutely vital compendium covering all high points, low points, and pen points of the personalities who hijacked our pop culture — pioneering a now-dominant American industry, ultimately creating characters and films that have stood the test of time. A delightful read — like the cartoons themselves: buoyant, bouncy, and wonderfully entertaining.”—Jerry Beck, animation historian and author